The Q's First Mobile Agent
By Mike Hobbs
When nineteen year-old Cliff Meadows went to work for Western Union at 33 S. Cherry St. in Galesburg in the spring of 1941, he did not imagine that within a few months he would begin a forty-one year career with the CB&Q and BN Railroads and become the Q's first mobile agent. The eighty-three year-old Galesburg resident was born in Foley, Missouri in 1921. After graduating from Winfield High School in 1940, he attended a business college in Chillicothe, Missouri where he learned typing and telegraphy. The college placed him on the Western Union job in Galesburg where he learned to teletype. Cliff heard that a young man who picked up mail at the Western Union office had applied for an open teletype operator job with the railroad. The young man was drafted into the army, so the job remained open. Over his lunch break one day Cliff went to the old Q depot on South Seminary St. to see Chief Dispatcher H.V. Lonis about applying for the job. Mr. Lonis gave Cliff a rough time by saying that he had misgivings about hiring a Missourian, when, in fact, Lonis himself was from Missouri. He told Cliff to go across the hall to see the company doctor who tested him for color blindness, diabetes, and hearing. Cliff got the job, resigned his Western Union job, and went to work for the railroad on August 1, 1941.
He worked the teletype operator extra list (on call to fill vacancies) until December, and then he worked regular first and second shift jobs seven days a week at the old Willis Yard Office for sixty-seven and 1/2 cents an hour (he had made thirty cents an hour on his Western Union job) until he was drafted into the army in November, 1943. He thinks the Yard Office was named for a Mr. Willis who engineered the automated East Hump which went into operation in 1931. He worked seven eight-hours days each week with no rest days, vacations, or holidays. The only way he could get a day off was to lay off without pay. As a teletype operator Cliff used a transmitter with a typewriter-like keyboard with numbers and all upper case letters to send outbound train lists to the depot where a relay operator took the tape of the train list from a receiver and transmitted it on to the tape's addressees. For example, Cliff addressed lists for Chicago-bound trains to the Aurora Division Chief Dispatcher and Division Superintendent, the Cicero Yard Office, Congress Park, the Superintendent of Transportation in Chicago, and the Galesburg Chief Dispatcher. Early in Cliff's career Paige Miller was the Aurora Division Superintendent, and Bill Abel was the Galesburg Division Superintendent. Harry Burke was the Galesburg Terminal Trainmaster, and Bud Ostrander was the night General Yardmaster.
Cliff said that the outbound train lists that he teletyped listed the addressees who were to receive the lists followed by the train number, conductor's and engineer's names, unit (locomotive) numbers, number of loads and empties, and tonnage. Each car's initial and number, tonnage, routing, and restrictions were then noted. Restrictions included livestock information, such as when the livestock were loaded. The federal government strictly enforced regulations on the transportation of livestock by rail. They had to be watered, fed, and rested every thirty-six hours. Trains were stopped enroute to their destinations to care for livestock, and the government imposed fines for infractions. Cliff also noted on his train lists if refrigerated cars had received ice in Galesburg.
As a single man during his early railroad career Cliff ate at some of the many restaurants in Galesburg in the early 40's, like New China, Bill's Lunch across from the Orpheum Theater, and Coney Island. For a more expensive meal he sometimes went to American Beauty on Main St. He remembered a restaurant in the railroad yard south of the Rip Yard near Swansonville operated by Helen Mead in an old dining car. It was nicknamed "The Beanery" and served meals and coffee to on-duty railroad employees. He chuckled when he told the story about the time Terminal Superintendent Roy Dyer ran some coffee-drinking carmen out of "The Beanery", and Helen Mead lit in to him for running off her business. Cliff rented a sleeping room on North Kellogg Street for $3 a week. Later he had a room at the old YMCA (corner of Seminary and Ferris Sts.) which rented rooms to single men, but he had to find other accomodations when the Army Air Corps moved young men into the Y who were taking classes at Knox College to learn to be pilots. He then took a sleeping room on Water Street. He rode a bike to the Willis Yard Office and sometimes walked to work, a distance of three to four miles. He was on duty on second shift in 1942 when the new automated West Hump was put into operation. He said there were many high railroad officials present when the first car was humped.
Galesburg Chief Dispatcher Lonis secured two six-month deferments from the military for Cliff claiming he was needed on the railroad. He said that Mr. Lonis tried his darnedest to keep his employees, because he didn't want to hire women to take their places. Eventually, with manpower requirements for the armed services increasing during World War II, Cliff was drafted into the army in November, 1943. He received basic training at Camp Blanding, Florida and landed at Naples, Italy in April, 1944 after twenty-eight days aboard ship in the Atlantic Ocean. He served on the front lines as a rifleman in Co. G, 351 Infantry Regiment, 88th. Division from July, 1944 until the end of the war in Europe in May, 1945 except for three weeks that he spent in a Naples hospital in November, 1944 recovering from mortar fragment wounds. For his service he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, three campaign stars, the Combat Infantry Badge, and the World War II Victory Medal. He was discharged at Camp Grant near Rockford on December 31, 1945.
Cliff returned to the railroad in March, 1946 and worked teletype operator jobs all three shifts and second shift operator at Willis Yard until September, 1960 when he became the station agent at Viola. There were many station agent jobs on the Q in those days. In the vicinity of Viola there were agents at Joy, Aledo, New Windsor, Alexis, Rio, Alpha, and Henderson. Cliff said that agents were looked up to in the small towns where they worked. They were the representatives of the railroad. They worked days and wore an agent's uniform and cap. Citizens were impressed by their ability to telegraph (the telegraph was taken out of Viola in 1960). As the railroad's representative the small town agent had many duties. He ordered empty cars for his customers, like grain companies, to load by calling the car distributor in Galesburg. He made out switch lists for the conductor on the local which serviced his town with instructions on which cars to spot and pull. He regularly talked with conductors and dispatchers about the timing of locals and through freights. When a car was loaded by a customer, he made out a bill of lading showing the car's initial and number, contents, destination, routing, weight, and charges, and he sealed the car. He kept track of demurrage for cars on customers' property, and he collected for prepaid shipments. At Viola Cliff also handled "Less Than Carload (LCL)" Railroad Express Agency (REA) shipments which were delivered to the depot by Burlington Truck Lines out of Galesburg. He notified Viola businesses and individuals that their REA shipments had arrived, and he collected the charges. He kept a daily balance sheet of money on hand, owed, and remitted for freight charges and leased property. He filed monthly freight and REA financial reports and was subject to unannounced visits by railroad auditors. He handled small OS&D (Over, Short, and Damaged) claims by customers, and if the claim were large, like for dead livestock, he notified Special Agent Russ Johnson in Galesburg to investigate. He ordered his agency supplies, like blank forms and stamps, and did his own janitor work.
Cliff told me about a local that quit running in 1959. It was called the "Dolly Run". The Dolly originated in Galesburg, got off the Main Line at Galva for the Joy Branch, and went through Nekoma, Woodhull, Alpha, New Windsor, Viola, Gilchrist, Aledo, Joy, New Boston, Keithsburg, Oquawka, got back on the Main Line at Gladstone, and returned to Galesburg. Along its route it picked up cream, and handled passengers, U.S. mail, REA and LCL shipments, including many Sears Catalog items.
Being a small town agent was not all a bowl of cherries. The old depots where the agents worked were often dingy, hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Cliff remarked how cold the depot at Viola was on cold winter Monday mornings after sitting vacant over the weekend until he could get the coal stove fired up. There was the hassle of people coming into the depot with right of way problems and wanting used ties. There was monotony.
But things were about to change. In the mid-60's the Q looked at the feasibility of branch lines in terms of labor, equipment, and material costs associated with track maintenance, locals, and numerous agents, and the limited potential of business. To lower costs and improve service R.G. Johnson, the Q's general sales manager for the territory from Chicago to the Missouri River, came up with the concept of mobile agents. Cliff Meadows became the Q's first mobile agent in February, 1967. He was provided with a red, white, and black Ford P400 van that had an 8 x 12 foot office equipped with typewriter, desk, chair, file cabinet, settee for customers, heater, and air-conditioner. With a Motorola Motrac two-way radio he was able to communicate with dispatchers and conductors on locals. In the van Cliff was able to go directly to his customers in Joy, Viola, Gilchrist, and New Windsor on the Joy Line. His headquarters was Aledo where a separate agent remained on duty due to the volume of business there. The November 20, 1967 issue of Railway Age reported that Cliff's customers in Joy, Gilchrist, Viola, and New Widnsor loaded 700 cars in the first ten months of 1967. Inbound cars came to them loaded with fertilizer, lumber, sand, gravel, and livestock. They shipped out grain, bricks, and livestock. Customers included Rivoli Grain Co., Mercer Ready Mix, and Acme Lumber Co. in New Windsor, Hamilton Soil Service, Farmers Grain & Supply, and Doonan Implement Co. in Viola, Hydraulic Pressed Brick Co. near Gilchrist, and the Gulf Co. (fertilizer), Galesburg Order Buyers, and Alexander Lumber Co. in Joy. Railway Age reported that customers liked and appreciated the convenience and personal service that Cliff was able to provide as a mobile agent. It quoted Dan Hamilton of Hamilton Soil Service in Viola as saying, "If they get rid of him [Cliff], we'll get rid of the railroad." When his daily duties in the field were completed, Cliff returned to Aledo to complete a balance sheet of the day's business, and he phoned his report to Alpha from where the information was relayed to Cicero and placed on computerized car-records tape.
Cliff worked mobile agent jobs headquartered at Aledo, Alpha, and Galva until 1977. From 1977 until he retired in 1982 he worked relief operator and relief agent/operator jobs in Yates City and agent jobs in Yates City and Galva. Cliff's pride in his railroad service is obvious when he talks about it. He is still a union member (TCU), and he attends the weekly retiree breakfasts at the Grandview Restaurant on Tuesdays. He fondly recalls some of the men he worked with at Willis Yard many years ago, like Oscar Chinn, the day operator, and Mills Westfall, the third shift operator, Bill Crain's father Kenny who was Power Clerk, and Joe and Vince Morrissey's father Joe who had the demanding job of lining up switchmen for all three shifts, handling no-bills, and doing diversions. From his agent days he remembers Knox College graduate Bill Morrow of the Joy Feed Mills as being a likable guy who was good to work with, and East Local conductor C.E. Spillers as being a good conductor who worked hard to accommodate his customers.